CATCH-ing Up and Opting Out

ILYBYGTH reported yesterday on a new pilot program in New York City high schools.  The program, Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health, or CATCH, will expand the district’s condom-distribution program to include birth control pills and “morning-after” pills.

This morning, we read Catholic League President Bill Donohue’s denunciation of this “imperial edict” in an interview in the Christian Post.  “Whenever it comes to sensitive issues such as sexuality, the government must  always play an ancillary role to that of parents,” Donohue told the CP. “The provision  that parents can opt out smacks of governmental arrogance and must be resisted:  the government has no business eclipsing parental rights.”

Bill Donohue as the Wild-Eyed Pope on South Park’s “Fantastic Easter Special”

I am usually no fan of

Bill Donohue.  I find myself siding more often with the South Park send-up of his public-morality campaigns.  But in this case, I find his criticism of CATCH more compelling than the lame defense offered by Chanel Caraway of the NYC Board of Health.  Since only 1-2% of parents had opted out of the program, Caraway told ABC News, “this suggests that parents are OK with the service being available to their children.”

Again, please don’t misunderstand.  I support the CATCH program and its goals.  I would want my daughter to be able to get free condoms and contraceptives at school if she couldn’t get them elsewhere.

However, Caraway’s opt-out argument demonstrates a frightening ignorance of America’s educational history.  In prominent cases such as Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963), the US Supreme Court specifically concluded that “opt-out” provisions do not adequately respect families’ and children’s rights to be free of religious coercion.

As Justice Clark argued in his majority decision in Schempp, “Nor are these required exercises mitigated by the fact that individual students may absent themselves upon parental request, for that fact furnishes no defense to a claim of unconstitutionality under the Establishment Clause.”

I understand that this is a very different case.  Clark referred to the unconstitutionality of school-sponsored prayer.  It did not matter whether or not parents could opt out if the program defied Constitutional freedoms.  However, issues of sexuality are intimately connected to religious values for many students and families.  Could not a Bill Donohue argue that such state-imposed sexuality–even with an opt-out provision–denied some students their Constitutional right to free exercise of religion?  To assume that an opt-out clause defuses any potential complaint from conservative religious families seems ignorant at best, and, as Donohue put it, “imperial” at worst.